Supporting foster kids to age 25 would save money

This article by Tracy Sherlock originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun on 19 Sep 2016.

The cost of supporting foster children in B.C. for six additional years would be about $99,000 for each young person, but the benefits would far outweigh that cost, says the report Opportunities in Transition: An Economic Analysis of Investing in Youth Aging out of Foster Care. 

“There is a very compelling case to allocate more resources for a more effective and supportive transition. This is from someone who is not emotionally engaged, but as an outsider looking at the evidence,”said Marvin Shaffer, principal investigator for the report. He is a consulting economist and adjunct professor in the public policy program at Simon Fraser University.

Today, foster children “age out” on their 19th birthday and are abruptly cut off government support. Research has found that fewer than one-third of foster children graduate from high school on schedule, while the rate for the general population is 84 per cent. Very few former foster children go on to post secondary education and many of them end up in low-paying jobs or rely on income assistance. As The Vancouver Sun found in its 2014 series, From Care to Where, when children in care are cut off at 19, they face high rates of homelessness, unemployment, poverty, substance abuse and incarceration.

There have been several high-profile deaths of young people in B.C. who have aged out or who are approaching their 19th birthdays, including Paige Gauchier and Alex Gervais. 

Beyond the moral arguments, the economic benefits alone — reduced need for income assistance, higher earnings and more taxes paid by these youth, reduced government health care, criminal justice-related and other service expenditures — will exceed the costs of this investment, the report says. 

Stephanie Cadieux, minister of children and families, said her ministry would soon be announcing “very positive” changes to its support for former foster children.  

“We recognize there is always more we can do, and there are a number of efforts underway across government aimed at better supporting youth as they transition from care,” Cadieux said in a statement. 

Other provinces, including Ontario and Alberta, have comprehensive support that is available beyond age 19, although Cadieux said B.C.’s programs either match or exceed those available in other provinces. 

The report proposes extending support to B.C. foster children up to their 25th birthdays at a cost of about $15,000 a year for 19 year olds. That support would gradually taper off in later years, under the assumption the young people can begin to earn some money themselves.

The proposal builds on an existing support program, called AYA or Agreements with Young Adults, but would have much looser requirements and broader and more extended eligibility. Such support is now only available to young people who are in a formal educational, vocational or rehabilitative program and for a maximum of two years. 

“Our intent is that this should be available as broadly and unconditionally as possible because you want to reach as many of these youth as possible,” Shaffer said. 

Cadieux said the coming changes will include amendments to Agreements with Young Adults. 

“We’ve passed an amendment that will allow us to extend the duration of Agreements with Young Adults and raise the age limit,” Cadieux said. “And, recognizing that many of these young people are not yet in a position to pursue post-secondary education, we will also be expanding AYA to offer life-skill programming so that more youth from care can access advice, training and support to help them achieve independence and success as adults.” 

The $15,000 a year coast estimate is based on an income calculator used by universities to determine how much a student needs to live on, Shaffer said. 

The costs to government of adverse outcomes for youth aging out of care are very high — between $222 million and $268 million for the usual cohort of about 1,000 youth aging out each year — plus significant intangible costs, the report says. The costs include low educational attainment, which results in less income tax paid to government and a higher reliance on income assistance, and above average health and criminal justice costs. In contrast, providing basic support to foster children up to age 25 would only cost about $57 million per cohort, the report says. 

“(That) is small in relation to the potential benefits and may be recovered more than in full by incremental tax payments and reduced income assistance payments,” Shaffer said. “Even if there was some net cost to government, it’s a small amount per household that surveys suggest people would be willing to pay if they had to to provide these youth with support.” 

It would cost each household in B.C. about $33 a year to provide this kind of support, assuming there was no return on investment, the report says. 

Shaffer said he learned a lot working on the report. 

“It’s an area that I don’t think people generally … are familiar with — the starkness of the transition an the marked difference in the outcomes for many of these youth aging out without the kind of supports most youth in the general population have,” Shaffer said. 

This research report is similar to a cost-benefit analysis done by The Sun that found extending support beyond 19 would save money in the long run by improving foster children’s chances of getting educated and finding a job, and reducing reliance on welfare, shelters, hospitals and the justice system.  

The report was commissioned by the Vancouver Foundation, the Fostering Change campaign and the SFU School of Public Policy.